JFK Library Opens Digital Collections

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy

To coincide with the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, the JFK Presidential Library today announced the opening of “the nation’s largest online digitized presidential archive.”

The details were presented in the Archivist’s Reception Room in the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. by David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States (bio | blog), and Caroline Kennedy, President of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. (The JFK Library is one of thirteen presidential libraries administered by NARA, the National Archives and Records Administration.)

A little more than four years ago, on June 8, 2006, Senator Edward M. Kennedy announced the digitization project. According to the press release:

“At launch, the archive features approximately 200,000 pages; 300 reels of audio tape, containing more than 1,245 individual recordings of telephone calls, speeches and meetings; 300 museum artifacts; 72 reels of film; and 1,500 photos. The sheer volume of digitized materials is unprecedented for presidential libraries whose collections were not born digitally.”

Just as in any digitization project, the initial release includes only a fraction of what is in the library itself. As the press release notes, the JFK Library’s holdings:

“currently include more than 8.4 million pages of the personal, congressional and presidential papers of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and more than 40 million pages of over 300 other individuals who were associated with the Kennedy Administration or mid-20th Century American history. In addition, the archives hold more than 400,000 still photographs; 9,000 hours of audio recordings; 7.5 million feet of motion picture film; and 1,200 hours of video recordings. Digitization efforts are ongoing and additional material will continue to be added to the archive as it is scanned and described.”

While many genealogists may jump to the conclusion that their family is not in these records, so they do not matter to them, I think the point is that this will be a powerful resource for scholars of all types, especially historians and family historians who seek to put the families they research into an historical context. The success of this project will add to the even larger Google Books and Europeana projects, and serve as a guide and as persuasion for many other kinds of libraries, archives, and repositories to digitize their materials.

The popular media (and Ancestry.com and its competitors) imply that more genealogical records have been digitized than in fact have been. Nevertheless, I say: The more digitization, the better. The benefits of digitization can be summarized as follows. Digitization:

  1. Creates a backup copy of the original document.
  2. Allows archivists to limit handling of rare and fragile documents, since a digital copy can be made available instead for most purposes.
  3. Makes materials more widely available, with less concern for time and space, 24 hours a day, over the Internet.

To clarify the state of things with digital genealogical records: Yes, many records have been digitized; no, the vast majority of records have not been digitized. So, I welcome the launch of the JFK Library digital archives, and of any digitized records, as another brick in an edifice that will never be fully constructed.